Extras. BG. Background artists. Background actors. Atmosphere. Props with pulses. However way you want to call them (I don’t suggest using the last one openly), you’re undoubtedly going to work with them if you plan to AD anything.
On big union shows, there’s specific systems in place that help keep the background effectively moving around from casting all the way through action. Usually there’s a small army of PAs and casting folks who make sure these folks have everything they need to be the perfect dead body in the background of a zombie film. And these folks are usually paid pretty well for their time and documented fully.
This is vastly different for indie/non-union films. The paperwork usually boils down to photo/video releases and a PA is forced to sometimes check on them throughout the day and occasionally herd them to set. This usually results in having extras who are not experienced, unprepared, and annoyed at the process.
We can be better at handling the extras on an indie set. Just because they’re usually unpaid does not mean they are not equally important. A crazy bar scene on an indie needs just as atmosphere as a union show. In the immortal words of an A-list actor I worked with a couple years ago, "Just because we’re low budget does not mean we need to be fucking amateurs."
So just because we’re not giving our extras vouchers and start work from the accounting department, does not mean we should not handle them as if they were on a union set. Treating the background as professionals, unpaid or not, only helps your production across the board.
Firstly, you should budget someone to be the extras casting coordinator. Even on small budgets, I’ve seen this properly executed. You should NEVER rely on your ADs to do extras casting. Ever. Never ever ever ever ever. One more time: DON’T MAKE YOUR ADs DO EXTRAS CASTING. Your 2nd may be sitting in an office all day but they really are focused on a bizillion things to make sure the next few days of filming are smooth. Do you really want them diverting their attention away from this? Hire someone to be the extras liason. This helps so much. Not only can they make sure you have the right type of BG for each scene, but they can also help wrangle on set (and be a PA or additional AD when there’s no BG on set that day!) Extras Coordinators also make sure they cast BG that are AVAILABLE for the full day and also emphasize how important it is to be on time and remain there until released. It’s a common problem to have unpaid BG try to leave early and not bring up other commitments before filming. A coordinator can help filter out these people or alert production if anyone is leaving early ahead of time.
Once you have an extras casting person, the director should be sitting down with them or the 1st AD to go through each scene that requires BG. The director should be as specific as possible as what they are looking for in terms of BG. AND THIS SHOULD HAPPEN EARLY IN PRE-PRO. Especially if a specific wardrobe/hair/makeup/props/SPFX situation is needed for the BG. You will want each respective department head to know if they need to prepare for extras. BG like cops, paramedics, etc. all have specific looks that wardrobe and props will have to prepare for. Makeup and hair will often take a look at the BG on the day and do a touch up if needed before the BG is called to set. In regards to wardrobe, if the extras require special costumes, the BG will need to be cast early on so they can be scheduled for fittings with wardrobe before the day of filming.
Yes, even on an indie is this important. You cannot expect extras to come in on the day and be fully prepared. This all needs to be figured out well in advance. You’d be terrified to know how many indies neglect this part of pre-pro and have 100 extras show up with mismatched uniforms on the day and no way to make it work. This happens a lot and all it takes is a little foresight to avoid.
If BG is asked by wardrobe to bring clothing options, then it’s a little bit easier to handle them, but they still should go through proper casting and prep. I will never forget the day we had a party of 20-somethings in the script and production brought in a group of underage 17 year olds. We made it work, but it caused an unnecessary stress on production on a day when we already had a lot going on. Simply put: the BG needs to be just as important during pre-pro as casting your 1st team.
So you have your extras cast and prepared for the scenes they will be in. Now what do you do? You figure out the logistics of extras. This is something you may want to talk to production about hiring additionals for. Most indies will balk at the idea of hiring more crew unless it’s presented as a dayplayer situation. “They will help take care of things that we will not be able to give our attention to fully” usually does the trick in getting producers to bring on extra help. If the rate’s shit (which it usually is), you can ask them to offer additional AD credit if the person is seeking that line of work.
If you are bringing in additionals to help with BG on big BG days, then you will work with them in pre-pro to make sure there is a holding area, snacks, water, and bathrooms for your BG. YES, EVEN ON AN INDIE. It’s possible, I know it is because we’ve done it. This is where having your extras casting coordinator is super important. They can play 2nd 2nd and arrange for these things while also advising your additionals. It is important that any scene with more than 5 BG has a separate space for the BG including their own mini-crafty and lunch, waters, and if possible, their own bathroom situation. If your show has a locations department, this can be easily arranged between extras casting, additionals, and locations. And you can just check in to confirm. If there’s no locations, you should check in with your producers to make sure these things are being thought of.
The worst thing you can do is have 45 extras arrive on the day of filming and absolutely no place to put them. It’s even worse when they are required to have a wardrobe change or makeup/hair done. These details need to be worked out ahead of time. When your extras arrive that day, there should be signs up directing them to a holding area (even if it’s just a tent with tables and chairs). There should be signs for bathrooms and a plan worked out on how they will get through wardrobe, hair, and makeup if need be. Sometimes the vanities departments will have additionals themselves that come to the extras holding and provide their services there. Sometimes, you will need to have whoever is wrangling extras take the BG to where ever your vanities are staged and oversee the BG going through the works.Whatever your plan, it needs to be thought of, checked, and double checked and confirmed with all who need to be involved BEFORE the day of filming.
You don’t need a boatload of money to make sure these things happen. It’s all in the planning. If you can’t afford to take care of BG, there shouldn’t be scenes with BG, period. Even if you’re holding 15 BG in a backyard with a pop up tent and giving them costco snacks, you still have to have a plan. Unpaid BG will respond better to an efficient low budget than to a disorganized bigger budget.
When BG arrived, someone should be checking them in individually to make sure everyone who was cast has arrived promptly. The extras coordinator should send the ADs a sheet of BG names which shows what their call time is, what type of BG they are portraying, and if they’re being paid, what their rate is. This is referred to as “skins” and is super helpful when the extras arrive at holding. The coordinator should also make sure the extras PA has a contact list of all who were cast as BG in case they are running late. The extras PA will have releases, the skins, and some sort of contract/voucher paperwork if the extras are being paid. The PA should know how these things are filled out ahead of time and help assist each extra with the paperwork. This helps with credits, head count for the scene and for catering/crafty, and if paid, helps with accounting and making sure the extras get their check. In the end, whatever space ends up being extras holding, there should be a sign in area right near the door containing envelopes with ample printed out releases and contracts, lots of pens, clipboards, paper clips, and anything else that you deem necessary for the PA to have.
Wrangling BG doesn’t have to be complicated either. If there’s a lot of them, you can make a chart of where each person sits/stands/acts for the scene. You can make a list of people who are simply “crossers” (bodies that cross in front of the camera or behind the actors), featured extras (folks who will be in the scene prominently, or interact with the principals without speaking), and specific clusters of BG such as “cops”, “dancers”, “zombies”, etc. Having this stuff written down and listed out ahead of time helps out significantly and allows your 2nd or 2nd 2nd (if you’re lucky enough to have one on an indie!) to place BG while allowing you as the 1st to take care of your normal duties. Keeping a PA with BG is also essential as the 2nd or 2nd 2nd can call for them over walkie and the PA can walk the BG to the set and help place them. Your PA can also look after BG when they are not on set, making sure there is ample crafty, water, and that BG are not getting lost or going missing when they are needed.
If you have a 2nd 2nd, they will be the ones giving the BG their directions and arranging the BG. They will work with you and the DP to make sure the BG looks good on the frame. They will make sure the BG do not look directly at camera, or talk during the scene (remember… PANTOMIME!). Your extras PA will make sure unused BG remain quiet and out of the way if they are on the set, or walk them back to holding. Your PA will also help to warm up the BG and give them a 5-10 minute warning before going to set. This allows the BG time to go to the bathroom, finish up snacks and cigarettes, and do any makeup and hair touches if needed.
If you are without a 2nd 2nd, either you or your 2nd will be in charge of overseeing the BG while they are on set, and calling for the right BG for a shot when the extras are in holding. This is a pain in the ass, but it’s totally doable and this is also a great time to have your extras coordinator on set to help if they’re not needed to cast more BG for future scenes. Whatever the situation is, you can easily (and without spending more money) come up with a proper plan to oversee them.
A good bit of advice is to wrap out groups of BG as soon as possible. They also have a turnaround and if they’re needed back the next day, you will want to treat them like your first team actors. They need to drive home, sleep, see their families, etc. Especially if they’re unpaid! Kill em with kindness and appreciate the fact that they are spending time on the set without the promise of a paycheck. That’s a very difficult thing to ask for so BE GRATEFUL! It’s not always possible to send them home as soon as the angle’s done, but if you can, DO! It helps not only with BG morale, but also keeps costs down (extras LOVE free crafty). When BG are released for the day, make note of each BG’s out time. Even if it’s not absolutely necessary for accounting or the PRs in your case, this is a great habit to get into because it IS necessary for union shows. Your PA can sign out each extra like they signed them in and create a chart of what time each extra left location for the day.
In terms of scheduling BG, you as the 1st should try to not put big extras days on the same days as other big scenes that don’t include extras. Schedule extras scenes together if there are multiple scenes with BG on one set. Wrangling BG takes time and placing them can be a much longer than anticipated process. You will want to account for the extra time it takes to herd more bodies around and give them the attention they deserve. You will also want to be as specific as possible when setting call times for the BG. Be realistic. Don’t call them in too early, especially if they’re not paid. BG will get grumpy if they’re sitting around for too long (and who can blame them?). And even if they are paid, they’re often rated for a certain amount of hours before going into overtime, so realistic call times affect your budget as well as your BG’s morale.
At the end of the day, indie or union, we all recognize the importance of solidly placed and coordinated atmosphere to fleshing out the film. DPs love having the action on their frame and directors love the energy BG brings to the scene, so don’t treat them like subhumans. Take care of your BG, paid or unpaid, and they will in turn take care of you.
“We identify with Luke Skywalker because he dreams of something bigger and his guardians won’t let him do what he wants to do, not because we all grew up as moisture farmers on Tatooine.”—Film Crit Hulk - Screenwriting 101
“Screenwriters shouldn’t direct on the page? Screw that. We’re building a movie on paper. We should use all tools available both to make the reader see the film and our fellow filmmakers understand our intentions.”—
so far, the most effective tool for breaking a story has been just writing out a timeline of EVERYTHING that happens in a story, without regard for what the audience is experiencing.
i’ll start developing a timeline at around the same time that i’ve done a couple attempts at starting the outline, just to get a feel for what moving parts are missing from the story.
timelining is different from outlining because a timeline is a list of events, one after another, that have to happen in order for the events of the story to function. timelining has been really helpful to me for understanding how plot mechanics have to work in the story i’m trying to tell.
There is a comic out tomorrow with Lois Lane in the title. Hard to believe that for a character who had her own comic for 16 years, one that outsold Batman, that this would be a big deal. Lois Lane is the longest running female character in DC Comics. She made her first appearance in Action Comics #1 with Superman which means it is also her 75th anniversary this year. Here’s a look back at the comics of Lois Lane through the years.
“Write your screenplay in a way that encourages it to be read at the same pace as the movie that’s playing in your head. If the words on the page are shoved together, or if paragraphs run on too long, that’s how the reader will read the scene.”—Stuart Friedel - Learning from the Three Page Challenge
I get over 200 DMs and asks a day, every day. Sometimes more.
I can’t answer them all, some days I can’t even READ them all. But I try my best and answer absolutely as many as I can, positive or negative.
If I didn’t answer yours, it is not a conspiracy. I am doing my best. The last three days I have been on three airplanes and in two hotels and I haven’t made it home yet. I will answer as many as I can. Sending me snippy DMs about it is just a little rude.
Sometimes a movie has to be told out of order so that the dramatic tension can be maintained over a single arc.
Movies aren’t like television, where you have cycles of tension/release of somewhat equal magnitude over fixed intervals. What separated cinema from long-form storytelling is that cinema demands a complete dramatic arc from opening to close.
However, let’s say you’re adapting a TV show to film. Assuming you’re taking an entire series or season and translating it to film, it would be kind of impossible to maintain dramatic narrative tension over the arc of the film if you tell the story chronologically because every episode most likely has an arc of its own.
So what you have to do is write out the chronology of all important events and their effects, and then go through line by line and find out what is extra, what isn’t essential.
You can add stuff back in later if you find that you need it, but really the point is to find the great dramatic single arc that flows throughout the entire series, and wrap your film screenplay around that.
Then you can begin to see what lines add to that arc and what lines lead away from it.
The danger, of course, is that you risk distorting the original material to the point where it might become unrecognizable.
This is where non-linear storytelling comes in. You can build on tension and theme but changing the order of scenes and time so that things which might have lead to a release of tension too early can end up bookending the narrative you’re trying to tell.
Don’t think about it. Don’t fret over it. Don’t worry if it’s perfect or if it’s good or even if you like it.
The idea that is burning in your chest, it is perfect. But the thing you put on paper can’t ever be perfect. That’s okay. It’s not supposed to be. It’s not even supposed to be good. Not yet.
Just write it.
Write it down. Keep writing. Start wherever you can. Write the first page. Write all the way to the end. If you get stuck, make lists. What’s the chronology? What’s the thing that has to happen to get you where you are. What had to happen to make that first thing happen?
Just write it. Do not stop. That idea that is burning in your chest, keep it in your mind. Think about it always. That’s your guiding star. It will keep you on track. Whenever you get lost or doubtful, remember the burning idea.
Write until The End. No editing! Resist the urge to edit as you write. It’s an endless trap, a pit from which there is no escape. You cannot edit an unfinished story, do not try.
Print out the first draft and let it stand on its own. It’s ugly, it’s rough, it’s dull. Not unlike a raw slab of unpolished marble.
And then read what you have written. Do not allow anyone else to read it.
You’re going to want to make changes. That’s fine. Go through with a red pen and find everything that doesn’t work. Don’t worry about grammar, or formatting. Just feel the story. You might find entire scenes that don’t work. That’s fine.
Open a blank document. Page one. Using your notes, and keeping that burning idea in your heart, begin writing the second draft. Do not stop until you have reached the end.
Pixar makes better movies because they tell better stories.
In an interview with Michael Arndt about his experience at Pixar, he revealed what separates Pixar from The Other Guys™.
“People say that writing is re-writing,” he [Arndt] continues, “but that leaves out a crucial part of the equation: the feedback you get prior to your re-write. Pixar stories work because of the robustness of the story feedback system.” Arndt points to statements made by several key Pixar staffers who admit that, at some point in the process, every single film Pixar made was once the worst thing one might ever see. “It’s only by making the movie as a ‘reel’ seven or eight times, and failing repeatedly, and by applying the smartest and most ruthless criticism you can to the story over and over again, that the stories are able to take shape and come out feeling coherent and complete,” he says.
Arndt’s observations on his time at Pixar only confirm what many film pundits and fans have long suspected: Pixar’s films are such rousing successes because of the attention each individual at the studio dedicates to the screenplays.
“Andrew Stanton’s rule of thumb is that it takes 10 man-years of labor to make a good screenplay,” Arndt explains.
“Either two writers working five years or 10 guys working one year. For Toy Story 3, it was even more than that — probably the equivalent of 10 people working two or three years.”
“To me, this is what separates Pixar from almost everyone else,” Arndt concludes. “They realize how hard it is to come up with a great screenplay.”
Michael Arndt won an Academy Award for his screenplay Little Miss Sunshine. Since then, he’s gone on to write the universally adored Toy Story 3, as well as The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
While at Pixar, Arndt discovered 8 distinct points that should be addressed in the first ten minutes of a film in order for the story to grip the audience and set things in motion.
Without further ado, they are as follows:
1. Show Your Main Character
Introduce the audience to your main character. As most of the story follows their perspective, you need to establish them in the mind of the audience.
2. Introduce the Universe that They Live In
Give your audience a chance to see the world that the protagonist lives in.
3. Show Your Character’s Grand Passion
Show your character doing the thing that they love the most. What is their Grand Passion?
4. Show Your Character’s Hidden Flaw
Only boring protagonists are perfect. Show the audience your main character’s flaw. Give them a flaw that comes out of their grand passion, that comes out of the thing they love doing the most.
5. Hint at Storm Clouds on the Horizon
Very subtly, hint to your audience that there is trouble out on the horizon.
6. Turn Your Character’s World Upside Down
Something comes into your hero’s life and turns it upside down. It takes away their grand passion.
7. Add Insult to Injury
If that is not enough, you have to add insult to injury. It is not enough to take away your protagonist’s grand passion; you always have to humiliate him in the process.
8. Have Your Character Make the Worst (most selfish) Choice
This is the big one. Bring your main character to a fork in the road. At this fork, they have two choices: a right choice and a wrong choice. Of course the character makes a wrong choice. Having seen what he has gone through, we understand perfectly why he makes the wrong choice. We even WANT him to make the wrong choice. This wrong choice comes out of his grand passion and provokes a crisis that sets us on our way to the rest of the adventure.
It’s important to understand that THIS IS NOT MEANT TO BE A FILL-IN-THE-BLANK, STEP-BY-STEP COOKIE CUTTER PROCESS.
The more you can condense these points into a single scene, action, or sequence, the better.
Kurt Vonnegut once gave 8 rules for writing a short story. You can find them here.
They work pretty well if you’re writing prose, but screenwriting is a bit different because you’re using text to tell a visual story. Understanding this, I’ve adapted his words of wisdom for screenwriting below.
Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Every line of your screenplay must do two things — reveal character and advance the action.
Start as close to the end as possible.
Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
Give your reader as much information as possible as soon as possible, through the actions of your characters and their environment.
Never use dialogue to explain things to the reader. Dialogue is for resolving conflict, not delivering information.
If this is indeed the year of reading more and writing better, now comes John Steinbeck — Pulitzer Prize winner, Nobel laureate, love guru — with six tips on writing, culled from his altogether excellent interview it the Fall 1975 issue of The Paris Review.
Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
But perhaps most paradoxically yet poetically, twelve years prior — in 1963, immediately after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception” — Steinbeck issued a thoughtful disclaimer to all such advice:
“If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.”